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  • Thursday, January 22, 2009

    Talking 'Bout No Generation
    by Sean Ripple

    “How can we not?”

    This was the response a fellow student made in regard to my dismissal of the cultural practice of assigning characteristics to people of a particular generation and categorizing these people based on those characteristics– itself a response to another student reading some of the characteristics of our generation aloud to the class. The air of the fellow student’s comment was not combative, it’s was more like she was trying to appeal to my sense of duty.

    This exchange occurred in early December, and it’s still gnawing at me a bit. Ambivalence being a prime motivator for a good deal of my writing (I’ve started to concede to her point while simultaneously holding on to the one I offered in class), I decided that this would be a good topic to write about for my first post of the New Year.

    Can a commonality be established between people born within a few years of each other who, as a result of their proximity in time and geography, experience similar historical events? Yes and no seems to be the answer.

    Certainly an event on the macroscopic scale that history deals in can cause individuals to act in ways they might not act, were the event never to come to pass. In this way, one can view historical context as a sculptor of generational trend, where commonality begins to emerge. However, because individual response is dynamic, the manner in which a person reacts to an event played out on the historical stage is varied. It is here that it seems that an aggregate begins to stratify and subdivide as much as it unifies and exhibits trends that we can use for categorization.

    Additionally, the degree to which a generational commonality manifests depends upon the nature of the objective stimulus visited upon the people who share a proximate relationship in time. By means of a simple example I will attempt to make the point more concrete. Consider two young children who are close in age and have grown up fully immersed in computer technology (to the degree in which we commonly experience it at this point in history). Though these children can be said to share a similar base of computer using experience and will certainly exhibit some degree of commonality such as knowledge of the name and functions of computer peripherals, how to work within a particular computing environment and how to use an internet browser, one can not say that the way in which they use the computer is the same. One child may begin to use the computer to learn about principals of computing from the perspective of an engineer, seeking to understand how to build such a device from the ground up, while the other may simply use it as a gaming device. To generalize and categorize these children simply as computer users glosses over the depth of individual experience and is a disservice to the fact that the children, though they share similar computer skills, have essential differences in the way in which they use their skills.

    That being said, it’s hard to escape the thought that shared experience within historically proximate time does contribute to a certain degree of generational trend. Again, the thought here is that the type of event influences the degree of commonality exhibited. An example that comes to mind is The Great Depression. The conclusion that a global economic crisis doesn’t contribute to a common outlook and generational trend is contrarian at best and foolish most definitely.

    So where does that leave us? Nowhere and everywhere…

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